Jul 212012

Boy, the more things change, the more they stay the same, don’t they?

Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is drunk, abusive, sweaty, “hand-to-mouth tumbleweed” of a man we first see curled up asleep in a small Arkansas jail.  He is approached by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) a fledgling reporter for her uncle’s radio station, who asks him “to spin a yarn or sing a song”, for her man-on-the-street program A Face in the Crowd.  His response speaks volumes about his true character.

  “What do I get out of this?  I mean Mr. Me, myself, and I?” 

When the sheriff promises to release him the next morning if he cooperates, Rhodes has a swift turnabout and slams into the blues on his guitar, bellowing he’ll be a “free man in the morning!”  Marcia is intrigued by him and somewhat nervous too.  When they catch him hitch-hiking on the road the next day, she instinctively pinches the collar of her blouse together as he leans into her car.  Marcia’s uncle sees potential in this wandering minstrel, and offers him a job as a morning personality.  Rhodes is reluctant at first, but takes the job when he sees it will earn him enough scratch to get a plane ticket to Florida.  Within a week, his folksy wisdom, songs, and stories from his fictional home of Riddle have made him radio gold, and he’s the darling of the housefrau set.  Marcia has christened him “Lonesome Rhodes” and he takes the name to heart, slowly realizing that his home-grown allure has a way of swaying people to his will.   Before long, he’s offered his first TV job in Memphis, then a national TV show in New York.  He revitalizes the image of the show’s sponsor, Vitajex, from a bland energy pill into a libido miracle.  But as his ego and popularity inflates, TV stardom isn’t enough; he has his sights on higher power.   Marcia is both attracted and repulsed by Larry’s animal magnetism, and  is torn between her love for him and her horror at the monster he is becoming.  She realizes he is a force that must be stopped.

Director Elia Kazan chose newcomer Andy Griffith to play Rhodes.  Up to this point, Griffith had been a stand-up comedian and an ‘aw shucks’ sort of yokel character on Broadway in No Time for Sergeants. This was a startling departure for him, and if you’ve only seen Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor, you will be awed by the gritty, disturbing, and coarse layers of Rhodes that Griffith peels away. Rhodes acts like a sweet ‘aw shucks’ character on the surface, but he’s truly a manipulative, dirty, thieving, sexist bastard, qualities his public would never believe. His laugh is both ebullient and terrifying, as his intentions are anything but honorable. Yet Griffith also gives Lonesome small, genuine moments of anxiety and real loneliness, and here you actually feel compassion for him; quite an accomplishment for a first starring screen role. Patricia Neal as Marcia is so bright and exuberant when we first meet her, only to become a sad victim of her own creation, longing to escape his influence. We can see her heart crack in her soulful eyes. Walter Matthau is sharp wit who writes blocking for Rhodes, and you know he loves Marcia as much as he hates Rhodes.  The cast also includes Anthony Franciosa, as Rhodes’ slimy office boy-turned-agent, Kay Medford in comedic turn as Mrs. Rhodes, and, in her first role, Lee Remick as Betty Lou Fleckham, a barely legal baton twirler and Rhodes devotee.

Looking back on A Face in the Crowd, it is surprisingly prescient in its view of celebrity worship, and more importantly, how popular culture influences mind sets and politics. When Rhodes is employed by General Hainsworth to make over the image of Senator Fuller it could be a playbook for any current presidential contender. (The concept of candidate as product is in full swing here, as a candidate must be someone you don’t necessarily respect, but LOVE).   Yet the most frightening aspect of this drama is how easily this deceiving, charismatic character can influence his followers.  Watch as the studio audience hypnotically sings along with the Vitajex jingle, how a teenage baton twirler literally leans over backward for him, and how the public sees Lonesome as a true “saintly man”.  This aspect of AFITC makes it as timely today, if not more so, that it was in 1957.  Lonesome Rhodes would be a natural ‘reality’ star today, televangelist, or a loud-mouth co-host with Kelly Ripa, not to mention what he’d do with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  This tale rips into American gullibility and weakness for shiny things. We always want something new and exciting, even if it’s as phony and shallow as the latest reality star to hit the airwaves.  The Vitajex montage in the movie isn’t too far from the infomercials that fill the empty spaces in 24 hour programming today.  How far we’ve come since then…or have we?  The line from Fleetwood Mac’s song “Dreams” comes to mind: “Players only love you when they’re playing”.  Sadly, there will always be players like Lonesome Rhodes.

SNACKING GAME:  Munch or imbibe whenever you hear the word ‘Morning’ or whenever Lonesome gives his signature laugh.

Memorable Quotes:

Oh, a guitar beats a woman every time. I never have seen a woman I can trust like this old guitar.  Love my Mama guitar. Never asks me for money or goes cheatin’ around when I ain’t lookin’.  If she gets a little sour, why I just give her a little twist like so and we’re right in tune together.

Thanks for them pies, gals, you gonna spile me!

Shucks, Mister, I’m just a country boy.

How’d you like to get acquainted in the mornin’?

You cold-fish respectable girls. Inside you crave the same thing as the rest of them

Bye! I’ll think of you good people! (Boy, am I glad to shake that dump)

(addressing his first TV audience about a homeless woman he met)  If it don’t move you the way I think it will, you’re just a bunch of big city pickle hearts.  An I’m gonna pack up my one shirt and the Bible my daddy give me, an my cigar-box guitar an’ I’ll get me on home to Riddle.

I get extra hungry in the morning.

Where I’m from, if a fella looks too dignified,  we figure he’s lookin” to steal your watch!

I pasted your picture on the ceiling over my bed. You’re the first thing I see in the morning!

Vita Jex-Jex-Jex makes you go-go-go!

Senator, how you gonna get this bush monkey to vote for you?

This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep…they’re mine! I own them. They think like I do. Only they’re more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for them!

I’m gonna make them love me!



  27 Responses to “Retro Reel Review # 13 A Face In the Crowd (1957)”

  1. This has long been one of my favorites despite my feelings about Kazan. Walter Matthau’s speech at the end gives me chills it is so perfect.

    • Yes indeed. Budd Schulberg was an incredible writer. Here’s his speech: (SPOILER)

      You’re gonna be back in television. Only it won’t be quite the same as it was before. There’ll be a reasonable cooling off period, and someone will say ‘Why don’t we try him again in a inexpensive format? People’s memories aren’t too long. And you know, in a way, he’ll be right. Some of the people will forget and some won’t. Oh, you’ll have a show. Maybe not the best hour or, you know, top 10. Maybe not even in the top 35. But you’ll have a show. It just won’t be quite the same as it was before. Then a couple of new fellas will come along. And pretty soon a lot of your fans will be flocking around them. And then one day, somebody will ask ‘Whatever happened to what’s-his-name? You know, the one who was so big, the number-one fella a couple of years ago. He was famous! How can we forget a name like that? Oh by the way, have you seen Barry Mills? I think he’s the greatest thing since Will Rogers! (he calls to Beanie to turn on the applause machine that Rhodes invented, and leaves Rhodes alone with only the recorded applause to listen to).

      By the way, did any of you catch this on TCM last Wednesday (7/18) during the tribute to Griffith? Next week (7/25) they’re having a similar marathon for the late Ernest Borngine 🙁

  2. Great analysis of a fantastic film. I first saw it about 5 years ago and was blown away by Griffith’s acting chops. I’m surprised he didn’t go onto have a stronger film career in dramas because his acting blew me away. And I’m amazed that the film wasn’t nominated for any awards. Sure, it was a strong year for films but I personally think it was much better than Sayonara or Peyton Place. Anywho…

    When I saw it, I thought of the same themes you did and how relevant it is to today’s world. Possibly even more relevant than at the time it was made. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t recognized? Was it ahead of its time? In a world where people can get famous by leaking sex films like Kim Kardasian or by generating Bieber fever on YouTube, etc., with questionable real talent, AFITC seems downright prophetic.

    I can only say that if any readers haven’t seen this, you must find it and watch it. It will blow you away. Everything about celebrity worship, phonies, gullibility of the crowds, etc., is there. And Griffith’s performance will knock your socks off.

    • I applaud Jon Hamm’s statement about Kardashian, he said: “We’re at a place where the idea of being ‘elite’ is somehow considered a negative. Whether it’s Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian or whoever, stupidity is certainly celebrated. Being a f—ing idiot is a valuable commodity in this culture because you’re rewarded significantly… It doesn’t make sense to me.”

      This aspect of hero worship is acknowledged in AFITC — When Rhodes makes over Senator Fuller. General Hainsworth refers to the new culture of TV politics, and what the people want to hear, a;

      …Instead of long winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans. ‘Time for a change, The mess in Washington, more bang for the buck’ Punchlines and glamor!

      When newspaper editor Pervis protests that Fuller is “not a grandstander, backslapper or baby-kisser,” Hainsworth storms “That is exactly what he has to become! …we’ve got to find 35 million BUYERS for the product we call Worthington Fuller!”

      Pervis replies ” I think you underestimate the respect–” and is cut off by Rhodes

      “RESPECT?” he cries, ” Did you ever hear of anyone any product, beer, hair rinse, tissue, because they RESPECT it?”

      The whole scene is a premonition of our sound-bite culture.

      • Thanks for including the Jon Hamm quote, Therese. I know he’s taken flak for saying that, but I agree with it entirely.

        • I really appreciated his honesty in that comment, and wish more in Hollywood would try to work against the dumbing-down of the entire industry.

  3. Always found this film powerful for its writing *and* acting…and foreshadowing. While it smacked of a touch of ‘recent’ (in the ’50s) history (see: Father Coughlin – go ahead – do a little googlin’!)…it now points me to people like the right-wing evil monster clowns a la Beck, Limbaugh, etc.

    Frightening…and so very well done.

  4. This is one of my most favorite movies and for the reasons you mention. I’ve heard that Griffith’s character is based on an radio and early television star named Arthur Godfrey who had the same folksy charm and ability to sell anything. He destroyed his radio/television career when out of the blue he fired singer Julius LaRosa on air, later explaining he did because LaRosa lacked humility. Bud Schulburg’s speech sure applies to Godfrey career after that night.

    You can read about Godfrey at The Museum of Broadcast Communications:

    You can watch a clip from the series “Biography” about Godfrey that covers Godfrey’s firing of LaRosa at this link:

    • Thanks for this link! There’s a wink of a mention of Arthur Godfrey in this movie too — When Rhodes needs a few days off from the show, he tells Marcia “Get Arthur Godfrey to fill in for me, I’ll do the same for him sometime!”

  5. Thank you for this most excellent synopsis.More people need to know about this film, lest anyone think that popular culture and politics only became terrifyingly and stupidly entwined only recently. Say what you will about Kazan (and there is a LOT to say) but he was an awesome film maker and I gained a respect for Andy Griffith I would not have thought possible when I only knew him from Mayberry. I hope that this and “Network” will never be remade and updated. It simply isn’t necessary.

    • You’re welcome! And I think this is an especially important film to see in an election year.

    • This film is a MUST SEE. A prescient, PROPHECY of a film, like Network, which predicted the decline of American culture as (Gasp!) INEVITABLE. One of the hundred films to see before you die.
      Andy Griffith is electric. Patrician Neal is spot on. THANK YOU, Therese for making everyone aware of this magnificent tale.

      Sweet Smell of Success also came out that year and neither was even nominated for best picture.
      Imagine how many Oscars those two films would win now in this watered down culture?

      • Agree. This film is an American classic, with a particular edge.

        I first saw the film just a couple of years ago. At that point, I had only seen Griffith in his Mayberry days (and in Waitress): sweet-guy roles. I was shocked by how magnetic, and finally terrifying, he was as Rhodes.

        Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau are also fantastic — Neal on her own is a revelation, but I love the scenes these two share.

        Thanks, Therese. Great review!

      • It’s prophesy about culture was scary wasn’t it? Although I do appreciate that it shows that sliminess didn’t begin in the late ’60s, but had been around for quite a while. It’s all been snake oil for the almighty buck.

        Also, Anne, the relationship between Matthau and Neal’s characters reminds me a bit of the relationship between Don and Joan; professional, with a lot of respect for each other, and they definitely ‘get’ each other. However, in this movie, Mel and Marcia are somewhat nicer people, and I bet their characters would be very happy together! Love it.

  6. I caught the classic film, “Face in the Crowd”, the other night on Turner Classics and my senses told me to stay with the show stopping ending. I have to revisit this classic, because I caught just the end of it, where Rhodes takes the high road to an killer ending. I feel the end of this story tells us more than the whole, because it takes an injustice to undo a man and return him to an unjust world .

    • How can the end tell us more than the whole (which includes the end, but in context)? That makes no sense. Thanks to Therese for alerting me to this movie. I’ll look out for it.

      • (note: spoilerish) I’ve found that often one can watch the last 20 minutes of a movie and figure out what it was all about, but in the case of this movie, Rhodes outcome is only the result of all the lies he’s been piling on everyone around him and his audience. You really have to see it from the beginning to catch all of its nuance and social commentary.

        Sue, I am a little confused by your comment. Which injustice are you referring to?
        When Rhodes is exposed for the monster he is, most people would consider that poetic (and sweet) justice and completely deserved. Can you elaborate?

  7. Am I the only one amazed that in today’s cynical world that someone like the Rhodes character can exist? And they do exist as noted in some of the above comments. Do people really swallow the stuff that is put out? Really?

    • Donna, I have no doubt that it continues today, only it’s exacerbated through social media, any swindler can make himself a god these days.

      And Sue (Hi buddy!) Yes, you gotta see it from the beginning! Netflix has it. We’ll have to compare notes after you see it.

    • “The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it”. — Adolf H.

      This film is in a league with others like The Americanization of Emily, and The Manchurian Candidate.

      Look at the two robots we have as a ‘choice’ for chief executive of the federal guvment this year. Coincidence?

  8. Griffith’s character, Lonesome Rhodes, was said to be inspired by Arthur Godfrey.

    Not many people today recall what a huge, influential presence Arthur Godfrey was, on the American scene. His daily daytime network TV show was also simulcast nationally on CBS radio and his prime time TV programs were also immensely popular – and profitable. At the height of his popularity, advertising revenues from Godfrey’s shows were bringing in 12% of CBS’s gross profits. A key aspect to Godfrey’s success was his on-air folksy demeanor and believability, when he pitched his sponsor’s products. Much of that impact began to be undone, in the wake of his on-air firing of singer, Julius LaRosa, who Godfrey said had lost his “humility.”


    • Yup, “it was said” several times… Godfrey might have been part of the inspiration, but he didn’t have the political edge. And he didn’t have the raw sex appeal of Lonesome Rhodes.

      I remember Arthur Godfrey–he might have been something on radio but he was just another Old Guy on TV. Well, I was very young….

      • By the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, Godfrey was pretty much off prime time TV, but I remember visiting my grandmother one morning, when I was 6 or 7 (’61 or ’62) and sitting on the floor of her bedroom listening to Godfrey on her 1928 Atwater-Kent floor-model radio. It was the radio simulcast of his daily network TV morning program. As I recall, his national radio show continued on CBS until ’71 or so.

  9. Can’t add much to what’s already been said, but I’d like to add that even the performances in the smaller roles are great. Anthony Franciosa was always a favorite of mine, a rising star at the time this was made, but now one of the more underappreciated actors of the period. And Lee Remick was the Scarlett Johannsson of her day: an incredibly sexy young actress who could really act.

    • Definitely, Mel. Remick is like a little girl playing grown up in her fur stole and ice cream soda. Funny that she and Franciosa ended up as man and wife in ‘The Long, Hot Summer’ only a year later which they were also perfect in!

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